Bean Counter: Testing LL Bean’s Guarantee

July 25, 2016

If you’ve been interested in men’s clothing for a while, you’ve probably heard of LL Bean’s guarantee. It’s not a one-year guarantee, or a guarantee against defects. It’s a lifetime 100% satisfaction guarantee, which means you can return anything at any time if you’re unhappy with it. Written on LL Bean’s website and every receipt, you’ll find: “Our products are guaranteed to give 100% satisfaction in every way. Return anything purchased from us at any time if it proves otherwise.”

If that seems really open, it’s because it is. This American Life recently did a great segment on what happens at LL Bean’s returns desk and there are some amazing stories (even if they make you lose a little faith in humanity). People return all sorts of things – 40 year-old flannel shirts, dirty bed sheets that don’t fit the owner’s new bed, broken chairs that fell off a car because the owner failed to secure it. One person even returned a half-eaten cookie (which, to be fair, is better than returning the outcome of a fully-eaten cookie). An excerpt:

The guarantee was not built for modern times. It came from one Maine shopkeeper, Leon Leonwood Bean, who sold mail order hunting boots with a promise, if you weren’t satisfied, you could return them.

A century later, people are buying used LL Bean products in bulk on eBay and returning them for full price. Others scoop up piles of old parkas and shirts at thrift shops, stuff them into garbage bags, and bring them back for store credit. I talked to one guy who found an LL Bean jacket at Goodwill for $10 and returned it, triumphantly, for $360 in store credit.

I’m not saying this is a tragedy for the human race. I am saying that 100 years ago, when the guarantee was born, the internet didn’t exist. “Thrifting” was not a verb.

The company tries, in its earnest, flannel way, to push back. They’ve asked Goodwill stores to put a big black X on the label of donated LL Bean clothes. Anything with an X on the label can’t be returned. They’ve started asking for driver’s licenses, to keep track of a person’s habits. If you’re returning a lot, but not buying a lot, you might get a polite cease and desist letter, basically asking you to shop elsewhere.

One woman, on Twitter, bragged recently about how she got some old boots for $8 at Goodwill and swapped them for a new pair at the store. She got a gentle reprimand tweet from LL Bean, signed LB. That’s about as far as they’ll go.

You can listen to the full story here (just click Act Two, which starts 28 minutes and 47 seconds into the program). Seems like the only reason LL Bean won’t accept for a return: returning something purely out of spite (sorry Seinfeld).

(thanks to Ari for the tip!)

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